Can injustice be atoned for? Is there a point at which nations can, and should, forgive themselves and move on for atrocities committed decades before? What obligations do the survivors of atrocities have for keeping the memories alive in the public consciousness? These are some of the questions that arose for me as I made my way through this short but difficult book.
The story is much like a one-act play. The setting is a small apartment and the entire action takes place in the space of perhaps three hours. There are only three actors: Rose Mélie, a survivor of the Jewish Action in Vichy France; her eighteen-year-old daughter, Louisiane; and the government official sent to inventory the Mélie's apartment prior to their eviction for failure to pay rent. The scope of the novel, however, is much broader and multi-faceted than this simplicity implies.
Rose was six when her brother, Jean, is killed in a brutal way that forever changes the way she views the world. Rose is unable to psychically leave 1942 and replays the events of that year, and the way they effected her family, endlessly in her mind and aloud to her daughter. Louisiane has spent her entire childhood listening to the historical ravings of her mother and trying to keep things under control. When things get too bad, her mother is institutionalized, and she is sent to foster care. Hard for a young girl who would rather watch soaps and learn about sex. The arrival of the official sets off Rose, who mistakes him for a Vichy militia member, and Louisiane who wants desperately to make things appear normal in the hopes that they might be given a reprieve.
I was unable to fully engage with the novel, despite this rather interesting premise, for a couple of reasons. First, I didn't connect emotionally with any of the characters, all of whom are "difficult to love". Second, the novel is written almost entirely in dialogue, but without the punctuation that makes it easy for a reader to follow along. Finally, the book is just plain difficult. Woven around the plot described above is the analogy of the present representing the collaborationist atmosphere of the past. Just as Rose confuses the two, the reader is led to imagine Rose as the French citizen who does try to speak out against the regime, but is silenced. Louisiane is the person who appeases rather than confronts, hoping to overt disaster. Finally, in the the short piece, "Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers", included in the book I read, we hear from the perspective of the official, whose voice only confirms the analogy.